Mosaics of Hagia Sophia

The Southern Vestibule is a deep, entry-hall, 13.79 m. long, which lies on the axis of the narthex and immediately to the south of it.  It functioned originally as a sheltered passage for people and processions moving from outside Hagia Sophia into the narthex. Later it also functioned as the main entrance to the Patriarchal Palace which was on the right of it. It used to connect to the south-west ramp on the east and to rooms attached to the atrium. There was a small room and tiny cupboard here for the Emperor to leave his crown before entering the church.  In Ottoman times the doors were sealed up.  The vestibule is irregular in plan and the doorways are off center. The barrel vault above the mosaic was added at the same time as the mosaic.  Some years ago Ernst Hawkins studied the blue and white stucco cornices and concluded they are original and date from the time of Justinian.  The walls were originally covered with colored marbles, but now have been replaced with horrible fake marble paintings.  The ceiling vaults and upper walls of the Vestibule still have their ornamental carpet mosaics, which also date from 6th century.  These mosaics have been painted over to replace missing sections and to obscure crosses.

Some have speculated that the Southern Vestibule could have been the Pronaos of the Archangel Michael, so-called because there was a famous mosaic icon of him there, which has vanished.  The Pronaos figured in historical accounts and myths about the building of Hagia Sophia and was described by Russian pilgrims in the late Byzantine period.

The worshiper entered through bronze portals into the Vestibule and traversing it he passed other bronze doors in the narthex.  He saw the mosaic situated above this second doorway, where the subject is still illuminated by strong light admitted through a large window in the south wall, directly opposite to it.  The result is that now, as then, the mosaic, recessed beneath a semicircular arch, 1.83 m. deep, is well lit, and is clearly seen from the payment 6.45 m. below,
The Vestibule Mosaic in Hagia Sophia
The interior surface of the arch which crowns the panel to be described is itself, as are the vaults and higher surfaces of the walls, covered with colored mosaic decoration in geometric patterns with minute repeating figures. The presence of a sacred representation at this spot was known from its mention in a document of the twelfth century.  The image was described there very briefly.  It is not known when the mosaic was first concealed after the Muslim conquest of the City.  The Fosatti restoration of 1847 exposed the mosaic and even made repairs to it, before reconciling it under a new layer of plaster and painted ornament.  Finally, the plaster was removed by conservators and craftsmen of the Byzantine Institute of America - and the underlying work for revealed to the public in June 1935.


The Vestibule Mosaic

The mosaic is a Hymn of Laudation to the Mother of God; an Akathistos in color and light distinguished alike by its delicacy and vividness.

The mosaic fills more than half a circle, its width at the highest pint of the plaster cornice is 4.9 m; its greatest height is 3 m.

The subject presents a group of two Emperors on either side of the Virgin enthroned with the Infant Savior.  The figures are inscribed with their name and titles.  In the center the Virgin with her appellation of Mother of God.  To our right, Constantine the Great as a saint;  to our left, Justinian the First; both emperors are nimbate with halos.  The Virgin holds the Infant in her lap.  Constantine carries the City that bares his name.  Justinian supports in his hands the Church of St. Sophia.  The green ground beneath the figures is presented in four horizontal layers which grow darker as they recede.  The background is bright gold mosaic which vibrates with every pulse of light and creating an air of celestial brilliance around the amethyst-blue figures.  The mosaic is ragged along its edges; originally it was surrounded by a border of red tessellate, of which parts remain; at the base of the picture no less than eleven rows are missing. 


The Mother of God

The Virgin, here presented as the Mother of God, is shown seated, facing the onlooker, holding on her knees the Child Jesus, also facing the onlooker.  She holds in her hand a silk kerchief.  The oval features of the Virgin, which are lit from high up on our left, are purely formal.  The flesh is delicate, rose-shell in tint with green shadows;  the eyes are same deep blue of her robes, the nose is long and straight;  the mouth, which shows Fossati repair in plaster, is small and regular.  The expression is remote and impassive, and betrays no emotion.  The harmonious glance including the symmetry of the garment around the ears is classical. The upper part of the Virgin's body is wrapped in a maphorion.  She is seated on its edge.  The maphorion and stole are executed in the manner of the vestments of Emperors, which were silk.
Virgin in Hagia Sophia
The maphorion covers the head, forming a hood, and falls over the shoulders and great in short folds.  The lose-fitting cap worn by the Virgin is of the finest silk with a delicately woven border.  Gold ornaments, the segmenta, one in the center of the hood and one on each of her shoulders, adorn the maphorion: that are formed of four squares. The type of the segmenta is an early one, towards the year 1000 AD it was replaced by the segmenta of another type, having the shape of the cross or stars. The stole or the long garment the Virgin wears under the maphorion is of the same stuff, a lustrous silk of heavy woven thread.  Beneath the stole we catch a glimpse of the slippers of soft gilded leather with an oval inset of read leather.scaffold in vestibule Hagia SophiaAbove - putting up the scaffold to begin removing the plaster from the mosaic.  Here you can see the door to the 'Imperial' room on the right closest to the wall of the narthex. Closer in, also on the right,  is the small 'Imperial' cupboard, where the crown might have been stored when the Emperor entered Hagia Sophia.

The Child

The Child is represented seated on the knees of the Virgin.  He is blessing with the right hand in the manner of the Eastern Orthodox Church, the tip of the third finger touching the thumb.  In the left hand he holds a scroll.  The head of the Child is set full-face.  It is oval with an unusually high and prominent forehead.  The left brow is higher than the right.  The eyes are almond shaped and are turned towards the left.  The large dark reddish-brown pupils give depth to the expression.  The nose is small and straight.  The cheeks are full.  The mouth breaks gently into a smile.  The general impression is that of a face filled with thoughtful alertness and radiance and the whole figure seems ablaze with light.  At the same time we are aware that the artist in his characteristic Byzantine pre-occupation to endow the Child with the miraculous attributes has assigned to the body of an infant the head of an adolescent.

Around the head of the Child is a cruciform nimbus.  There is some Fossati restoration in it.  The hand of the child is unduly large when compared with the other limbs of the body.  The artist has done this to emphasize the benediction.  The bare right foot is large in comparison with the body of the Child.  The left foot is less visible and was partially destroyed by a bad Fosatti restoration which is very distracting since the foot is missing toes.

The Child is clothed in a gold chiton and gold himation.  The treatment of the colors in both garments indicate that they are of the same make and are woven with metallic wefts.  They have the same lustrous quality and silver highlights of such a fabric.  It is noticeable that to produce this effect  the cubes are set flat and not at an angle.


The Throne

The throne is represented in inverted perspective and is illuminated on the left.  The throne produces the effect of being an autonomous generating source of light, not a mere reflecting object; the light seems to emanate from the body of the mosaic itself, and the throne appears all luminous within.  It is very different from the one over the entrance in the Narthex; there the throne is a piece of place furniture, here it is an altar of light.  The Virgin is seated on a cushion and her feet rest on a footstool.


The Emperors

Both Emperors are represented somewhat nearer to the beholder than the central figures, their feet being approximately in the line of the front of the footstool.  They stand symmetrically and resemble each other, not only in the attitude of their bodies, but in their vestments and in their features.  Yet, although they show the same facial type, they are not identical.  The Emperors differ physically. The illuminated, ethereal figure of Constantine is in contrast with the more materialized figure of Justinian.  The hair of Constantine is in the style that was usual in the representation of the Emperors in the early Byzantine epoch.  Justinian is shown older than Constantine, his gaunt features are harder and headier.  He looks rather into space than towards the Virgin and Child.

Constantine in Hagia SophiaWhile the face of Constantine has a touch of sadness, Justinian does not share this.  There is nothing in common between this wrinkled, conventionalized face and the historical portraits of Justinian in Ravenna and elsewhere.

The Emperors are full-robed in a long and rather closely fitting tunic of chiton reaching almost to the ankles.  The chiton is blue, of the same shade and weave as the Virgin's tones; its front part is ornamented with two claves - broad vertical gold bands.  Over the chiton the Emperors wear the divitission, which is of the same color as the chiton.  The light spots on the garments here and on the other two figures are due to repairs by the Fosasati and conservators of the 1930's.  In executing these repairs Fossati used tessellae taken from other parts of the mosaic.

The most sumptuous part of the imperial vestments its the loros, a long, wide band of gold cloth that wrapped the whole bodies of the Emperors.  They are represented as made of a gorgeous heavy stiff brocade woven with metal threads of gold and silver, and they are embroidered with a pattern in green.  These loroi on the mosaic are destitute of the precious stones and pearls that usually adorn this vestment of the Basileus.  The form and ornamentation of the crowns are characteristic of the tenth and eleventh centuries.  They are crowned with the imperial stemma, a gold circlet covered with enamel seeming to represent golden sard surrounded surmounted by a triple ornament composed of a cross of pearls flanked by a grape-shaped pearl set on a peg on each side.  Pendants called prependulia hang from both sides, each consisting of three large pear shaped pearls - the Roman clenchi.  In the center of each circlet in is a large cabochon emerald framed in a horseshoe setting.  The shoes of the Emperors are of soft golden leather with seams of imperial red, and they are tied at the back of the ankle with a bow of similar color.
Justinian Mosaic in Hagia SophiaAbove: It sure looks like Hagia Sophia was painted two shades of blue in the 11th century.


The Inscriptions
The figure of the Virgin is accompanied by the usual monograms meaning Mother of God.  The inscription by Constantine reads - Constantine, the great Emperor amongst the saints.  That of Justinian reads - Justinian Emperor of illustrious memory.Hagia Sophia frieze in South Vestibule


This text is taken and edited from The Mosaics of St. Sophia at Istanbul, Second Preliminary Report Work Done in 1933 and 1934 by Thomas Whittemore, which was published in 1936.


Bob Atchison

Meet Bob Atchison - the Creator of this Website

I am an icon painter, Russian Historian and Austin Web Designer formerly of Seattle, Washington and now living in Austin, Texas. My interest in Byzantium and icons began when I was 8 years old and read my first book on Byzantium called "The Fall of Constantinople".

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An Imperial Gift

The Bent Crown of Hungary

A Byzantine Diadem


The “Corona Graeca” was a diplomatic gift of the court of Constantinople to Géza I, probably sent to Hungary with his Byzantine artistocrat fiancée. Most of the massive gems are original  and would have been set in the diadem when it was made in Constantinople.  This diadem closely resembles the great crown of Byzantium.  That crown can be seen in the mosaic of John II Comnenus in the South Gallery of Hagia Sophia.  John's wife, Eirene, was an Hungarian Princess.

The Holy Crown of Hungary

An Enamel Portrait of the Byzantine Emperor Michael VII Ducas


The gem under Michael is a huge watery aquamarine, which is a form of beryl.  When crown was dispatched from Constantinople every detail had been carefully worked out.  The Byzantine court sent out crowns frequently to foreign courts it favored or wanted to patronize. All of the foreign royalty received a Byzantine court title with it.  The value of the gemstones, the pearls and the gold was carefully calculated. Certain stones were selected for their perceived spiritual or metaphysical value.

The Hungarian King Geza I


Geza I, King of Hungary.  His portrait is placed on the crown in strict Byzantine hierarchy, Christ is above all and the Byzantine Emperor it below Him, higher than Geza.  Geza's eyes turn to look at Michael in deference to his position.  All male members of the Byzantine Imperial family wore portraits of the ruling Emperor on their own diadems or hats.

Enamel of Christ Enthroned


A superb enamel of Christ on His Heavenly Throne - one either side are two trees in the Garden of Paradise.  The gem under Christ is huge sapphire.

Enamel of Christ Enthroned


Another matching Byzantine enamel on the top of the crown.  The crossed-top arm is not the Byzantine form.  The top of a Byzantine diadem is open.  The crossing was added after the diadem arrived in Hungary. This enamel came from something else that came with the diadem.

Enamel of the Archangel Michael


There are two matching Archangels on the crown, facing Michael is Gabriel

Enamel of the Archangel Gabriel


Huge Sapphire Between Saint Demetrios and Saint Damianos


Most of the big stones of the diadem are semi-faceted.  The hanging cabochon drops are customary on Byzantine diadems.  They add flash and color to a man's long hair as he moves.

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The Pendoulia on the Diadem


They are made of different stones, including Garnets. Originally all of these would have been matching garnets - when some became detached and lost they were replaced with other stones.

The Back of the Diadem


The Inside of the Diadem